Is God on Our Side?

News at Home

Mr. Nielsen teaches in the history department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and writes for the History News Service.

God is on our side, President Bush assures us.

Speaking at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that America's "responsibility to history" was to "rid the world of evil." The service ended with the singing of the Civil War anthem, "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

To rid the world of evil is as much a theological task as it is a military one. President Bush seems confident that God's truth marches with him and his nation. During the Civil War, by contrast, Abraham Lincoln insisted that Americans needed to know that there might be a "difference of purpose between the Almighty and them." To deny this truth was to deny that there was a God governing the world.

The service at the National Cathedral was not the first time Bush asserted his belief in America's divine mission. Even before he became president he proclaimed that "our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world."

This conviction is deeply rooted in American history. Preaching to his fellow Puritans in 1630, shortly before they landed in Massachusetts, John Winthrop proclaimed that New England would be like a "city on a hill." The whole world would be watching. As God's people, the colonists had a sacred responsibility to do God's will.

This idea, that Americans are a chosen people and their country a chosen land, has animated much of our history, for both good and ill.

In God's name, his people have declared their belief in human equality, and they have created institutions to make it a reality. Also in God's name, they have justified slavery, the theft of Indian lands and war.

After the Spanish-American War, Filipinos assumed that the United States would give them their independence. After allegedly praying for guidance, President McKinley announced his decision to keep the Philippines in order to "Christianize" its people, notwithstanding the fact that Spanish missionaries had accomplished this two centuries before.

But not all American presidents have been so sure of God's will.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with the fate of four million slaves and real possibility that the nation would not survive, issues more momentous than those we face today. Like President Bush, Lincoln sprinkled his speeches with scriptural passages and references to God. Like Bush, he was a man of strong moral convictions. He knew evil when he saw it. "If slavery is not wrong," he wrote in 1864, "nothing is wrong."

Yet Lincoln was never certain whose side God was on. It was presumptuous to assume that one's own purposes were God's. "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God," Lincoln noted in 1862. "Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time." It was likely that God's purposes differed from the purposes of either party.

Lincoln drove this point home in his Second Inaugural Address, possibly the finest speech ever delivered by an American president. Speaking in March 1865 as the Civil War neared its bloody end, he observed that both sides, North and South, "read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." He said: "The prayers of both could not be answered; and those of neither has been answered fully."

This theological insight affected Lincoln's conduct of the war, which would be won by human beings, not divine intervention. Notwithstanding his moral opposition to slavery, the presence of slave states such as Kentucky in the Union required that he temper his convictions with pragmatism. He once explained that while he hoped to have God on his side, he absolutely had to have Kentucky.

Bush, who believes America to be ordained by God and who credits God with the fact he is in the White House, has turned Lincoln's theological and political wisdom on its head. Convinced that God is with him, the president has shown remarkably little interest in allies at a time he needs them most.

According to Bob Woodward, the author of Bush at War, the president has told his advisers that he does not worry about alienating other nations. "At some point, we may be the only ones left," he has said. "That's OK with me. We are America."

"You never ask questions," Bob Dylan sang in 1963, "when God's on your side."

The philosopher William James, an ardent opponent of American imperialism in the Philippines a century ago, once declared that "there is no certitude," only "men who are certain." George W. Bush is such a man.

Bush, clearly a devout man, apparently believes that since he has gained his soul, he need not worry about losing the whole world.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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wolf_meister - 11/19/2003

I agree with Kevin Cook. John Wayne was a draft dodger. For one thing, why didn't he join the Navy in 1926? Oh he wanted to go into the Navy IF he could get into Annapolis. He couldn't, so he went on to college with a football scholarship. If he were such a self-sacrificing American, why didn't he join the Navy as an enlisted man? Oh I guess he didn't want to join the deck-swabbing navy. There are so many reasons you hear why "the Duke" never went into the service - he had kids, an ear infection, a bad knee, etc. Isn't it funny that the American people who idolize this guy so much as the tough American male are so willing to believe that he was also 4-F. Give me a break. Kevin Cook mentioned some Hollywood heroes - here are some others - Audie Murphy (most decorated WW2 soldier - 5'5" tall - he's no John Wayne) Neville Brand (4th most decortaed), Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Jason Robards Jr, etc. It is always stated that John Wayne NEVER wanted to discuss why he didn't serve and it bothered him to do so. So what happened? His admirers made up all kinds of bullsh*t and this allowed Wayne to become a "Monday morning patiot". Then all that crap about his begging Washington DC to let him in the service during WW2. Hey I am a proud American and it upsets me that this guy is supposed to represent the USA. It is time the truth be told. Why don't you folks read about the other people I mentioned and then see John Wayne for the phony he is. If no one else, read about Audie Murphy - a REAL hero who fought in a REAL war.

Joseph Caramello - 10/21/2003

How can God be on our side? The very mention of God is soon to be made illegal because it threatens the very foundations of the republic. God indeed! have you no shame sir? At long last have you no shame? Sorry couldn't resist.

Kevin Russell Cook - 4/5/2003

Is God on your side? I sure don't know. So, why don't you ask him? Just don't be suprised if your neighbor claims also to have asked and has gotten a differing answer.

Kevin Russell Cook - 4/5/2003

John Wayne was, in real life, a draft dodger. I say this not because I am uncomfortable with what he came to represent. I say it simlply because it is true. While some of his peers (Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Miller, & others) were putting their lives on the line, John Wayne was asking his bosses at the studio to get him deferred. His own letters bear this out. Like certain current war icons, like so much of what we take to be honest, John Wayne was, in this sense, a phony. (Say it ain't so, Joe!) Ah History! Confront just one myth with the facts and whole new worlds will open to you!

Stephen - 3/28/2003

Your description of John Wayne bears no resemblance to the man you are discussing. Americans hold John Wayne is high regard because he represented everything that Americans love in a man.

It would be nice to agree with you that my "Stalinist" remarks are misplaced, but I don't agree.

The vicious, crazy attacks on Prez Bush that appear on this site are not the remarks one would expect of professional historians. Now, I'll tell you something about myself. I voted for Bill Clinton twice, much to my dismay. That man disgraced the presidency. And it wasn't about sex. The Clintons were among the chief architects of the sexual harassment hysteria that ruined the lives of thousands of men. Yet, they demanded an out for themselves.

The attack on masculinity and Christianity that has obsessed the left for 35 years is the basis for this hysterical assault on Prez Bush. And the doctrine that stands behind that attack is Marxist feminism. I'm not saying that Bush should be beyond criticism. Mr. Bush has taken an enormous gamble, one that will determine the success of his presidency. If he doesn't produce results, then the electorate will remove him and they should.

The hatred of Mr. Bush demonstrated on this site is not rationale or even decorous. The source of that hatred is that he is an emblem of masculinity and Christianity. And the forces behind that hatred of masculinity and Christianity are Marxist.

The notion that Marxist doggerel should be tolerated is long overdue for dismissal. We do not tolerate Nazi ravings, not because those ideas are officially suppressed, but because we know that no sane person will speak those ideas.

I've lived most of my life in the most leftist communities in America. I'm not going to be deluded. The source of this fanatic hatred of Mr. Bush is obvious.

Circle the Wagons - 3/28/2003

Actually, I am a born and raised Republican, the son of a protestant minister. I was raised in the legalistic Mid-west and earned an MBA from Harvard without any outside financial support. So please try to refrain from calling me a pinko commie Stalinist just because I do not agree with with the way the current administration has handled things.

That aside, I only stated facts. You said John Wayne was the embodyment of American Ideals. I just pointed out his well known character flaws. The Senator McCarthy remark was in response to your persistant paranoia that communists seem to be every where. I have seen your postings on other parts of the HNN website, and they are all the same; reactionary and illogical. Not everyone is a communist. Maybe you should step back and form a logical and rational discussion before you continue your discourse.

Stephen - 3/28/2003

Your choice of depicting the American past says everything there is to say about you.

The problem isn't that I'm calling you on your Stalinism. The problem is that you are a Stalinist.

You are in for a shock in the future. Your Stalinism is about to be driven from the public arena, not by repression but by disgust. Just as Nazism is forbidden in the public arena by disgust at the moral depravity of those who preach it, your Stalinism is about to get you in deep trouble.

Your days are over, clowns. You've lost.

Circle the Wagons - 3/28/2003

And we welcome to the podium Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Ah, those great American values of alcholism, chain smoking, womanizing and violence. Those really were the days.

Angie - 3/27/2003

President Bush is not a man. He is a monkey. Good old "curious George" is trying to imitate the best he can his father's presidency. He's got the ignore domestic issues part down pat. Now if he could only find a justifiable reason to attack Iraq...

Stephen - 3/27/2003

John Wayne is still the favorite movie star of Americans, many years after his death. And for good reason. He embodies the great American values.

It says everything about you that you detest those values.

Dirty commies never change. What do you plan to do with your Gulag, Stalinist scum?

Circle the Wagons - 3/27/2003

It is nice to see that so many years in the grave have not affected John Wayne too much. Pass the Viagra-testosterone shake, I think I see a man gardening.

I pity your children.

Stephen - 3/26/2003

Hello Panty-Waist Lefties:

The real issue of this war is this:

We have a president who's acting like a man.

This behavior is virtually unknown to the pussy-whipped men who now populate the academy and the hip environs.

Prez Bush is playing the role of the father who is doing what he must do. The half mad responses of the nitwits on this site are the ravings of depraved and spoiled children who think that the destruction of the father will bring about Utopia.

Prez Bush will continue to humiliate and out strategize you because he's a man, instead of a pathetic wimped out punching bag.

You're not going to like it. You're not supposed to. You're the enemy. The next step, after we defeat the tyrant, is to defeat wusses like you here in the U.S.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/26/2003

Would someone please call Stephen's doctor! He's off his meds again and can't even recall his last name. Those of us who lurk on this site -- Stalinists, like Richard Henry Morgan, and anti-religious zealots, like myself -- will halt our conspiratorial designs until Stephen's in better shape to do battle for righteous causes.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/26/2003

Interesting "argument":

"God is on our side, President Bush assures us.

Speaking at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that America's "responsibility to history" was to "rid the world of evil." The service ended with the singing of the Civil War anthem, "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

To rid the world of evil is as much a theological task as it is a military one. President Bush seems confident that God's truth marches with him and his nation."

First, as an appetizer, a little petitio principii, served on the half-shell. Then, as a main course, "responsibility to history" and "evil" are revealed to be necessarily theological concepts. It ain't history. It ain't even journalism. It does come close to ventriloquism, though, only this time the speaker is the one with the wooden head.

Stephen - 3/26/2003


I'm sane and you're not. That's obvious.

Amazingly, in view of this post, I'm probably the only person writing to this site who actually has met Bob Dylan.

I'm a professional musician, tech guru in the development of virtual environments and father and husband.

The venom spread on this site is the detritus of Stalinism. Hell, I own a home in Woodstock, NY, so I know a whole passel of Stalinist pigs like the ones that frequent this site. The Soviet Union is dead, boys, and your fervent prayers for its disinternment will prove to be futile.

Having lived my adult life in SF, NYC and Woodstock, I know what the Stalinists are up to.

It took me a long time to come to this conclusion. The leftist hate tirade against religion is always presented as a "rational" and "progressive" force. It is not. The Stalinists in the Soviet Union practiced this hatred of the religious, and for precisely the same reason. The Stalinists are insane and they are agents of destruction for the sake of destruction.

Boys, I'm not a redneck from the back woods. I live among the dreck that you come from.

Frank Lee - 3/26/2003

This piece hits the nail on the head.

Is there a way for the National Cathedral to excommunicate a hopelessly wayward hypocrite who abuses it ?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/25/2003

Stephen, You've spread your venim all over this website without owning up to your identity. Let us all know who is the source of this poison.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/25/2003

Stephen, You've spread your venim all over this website without owning up to your identity. Let us all know who is the source of this poison.

Stephen - 3/25/2003

Well, you've achieved it.

Still quoting Bob Dylan. That's a sure sign. Dylan is the Pied Piper of cultural collapse. Can't sing. A relic of the Civil Rights movement. Icon of the hippie ideal of sexual failure.

My wife is Filipino. Your appraisal of the role of the U.S. in the Philippines would convulse her in laughter.

Typical American hatred with a dose of Stalinist contempt for religion mixed in.

And, yes, I think that God probably is on our side.

You're a 60s relic, aren't you?